- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- If you're not a West Virginia player, it seems like a game played 10 years ago.
So much has happened in the interim: a coaching divorce as messy as any split on "Entertainment Tonight," an upset victory in the Fiesta Bowl, a coaching hire decided in the wee hours that appeared as well thought out as most marriages performed at 3 a.m.
Before any of that conspired to make Mountaineer football a soap opera, there was West Virginia's 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh, a four-touchdown underdog, on Dec. 1. If West Virginia had won, it would have played in the BCS National Championship Game, coach Rich Rodriguez would not have left for Michigan two weeks later and West Virginia would not have staged a coaching search that made the athletic department look as if it were being run out of the governor's back pocket.
It could be that Rodriguez did these Mountaineers a favor by leaving. Had he stayed, the scab forming over the wound left by the Backyard Brawl loss would have been pulled off on a daily basis.
Instead, the media and fans have focused on the coaching debacle, and the wound has gone untouched. Nearly six months have passed. So it is that every Mountaineer, given time to heal, has made his peace with the loss and moved on.
You're kidding, right?
"That pain is always in your heart," junior safety Quinton Andrews said.
"I'm not going to lie and tell you I don't think about it all the time," senior offensive tackle Ryan Stanchek said.
Once a week, Andrews said, he puts a recording of the Pittsburgh game into his DVD player at home and presses "Play." He made it sound like a new cop show -- "Cold Case: Morgantown."
"I still can never figure out what really happened," Andrews said. " Sometimes I think I watch it just to figure out, to see if I can find something else. I kind of feel like a detective when I watch that game, see if I can find new clues on why we lost the game."
The reason West Virginia lost the game is not as difficult to decipher as Andrews made it out to be. Quarterback Pat White suffered a dislocated right thumb in the first half and missed half the game. He came back in the fourth quarter, but not even White, the two-time Big East Offensive Player of the Year, can win with one hand tied behind his back.
"Everything," White said, "happens for a reason."
White is as unflappable as starched collars. He has a warm greeting for every Puskar Center employee who passes his seat in the lobby. The adults get a "sir." Everyone gets a smile.
"The biggest thing, when you look at Pat, is that he's always the same demeanor," Stanchek said. "I guess they always say the great quarterbacks are always calm. In the huddle, you see that. You look into his eyes the past three years, he's had the same look. When you look at Pat in the huddle, he's so calm. It could be fourth-and-1. Any situation, he's very calm. That's one of his great leadership qualities. He calms everybody down."
White, unlike his teammates, said the Fiesta Bowl victory did help soothe the pain of the Pittsburgh loss.
"I don't like to say it did, but it definitely did," White said. "That was a hard few weeks for us, with all that was going on. Coach Stew brought us together, and we played as a team and pulled through."
"Coach Stew" is Bill Stewart, the new head coach. It takes only five minutes with him to understand not only how he rallied the Mountaineers past the Sooners, but also why he is the living, breathing example of what it means to be in the right place at the right time. Only someone as relentlessly upbeat as Stewart could have brought back to life the stunned, dispirited team he inherited as acting head coach.
The antidote Stewart served the Mountaineers was the reason he received a battlefield promotion to head coach. After a tumultuous three weeks in which university officials could not reach a consensus on a candidate -- Florida assistant Doc Holliday (who would return to his alma mater as Stewart's associate head coach), former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Central Michigan coach Butch Jones -- Stewart made the football team a winner. He also made all Mountaineers -- players and fans -- feel good about themselves, no small feat after Rodriguez's departure.
Less than four months later, Stewart already has figured out what he needs to do to keep his job: keep White's jersey clean. It's how he plans to keep it clean that makes Mountaineer football interesting. Although they have won four of the past five Big East championships with a spread offense that highlights a running quarterback, the Mountaineers haven't made that last, biggest step into the national championship game.
Stewart believes that step will be made with the introduction of more passing.
The upside of the West Virginia spread offense Rodriguez installed is the pressure a running quarterback puts on a defense. Look at the numbers White has accumulated in three seasons as a starter: a 26-4 record, 3,506 rushing yards, 4,207 passing yards, 150.08 pass efficiency rating.
The downside is what happened in the Mountaineers' two losses this past season. White got hurt: a bruised quad in the 21-13 loss at South Florida, and the aforementioned thumb against Pittsburgh.
In some ways, I feel like I just got here. Physically, I feel like I've been here for about 20 years. My body is starting to get old.
-- Quarterback Pat White
"Patrick White running the ball 197 times?" Stewart said.
He knocked on his desk and followed by knocking on his skull.
"Living on the edge. My God, I pray that boy doesn't ever get hurt. We're living on the edge."
White needs 784 yards to climb past Brad Smith of Missouri and become the NCAA career rushing leader among quarterbacks. But you get the feeling that, as long as the Mountaineers keep winning, Stewart will have no problem if White falls short of the record. The expansion of the passing game will come down the middle of the field, where the Mountaineers have not thrown.
"We've been able to hit the deep ball down the boundary," Stewart said. "What happens is, when a South Florida or a Pittsburgh loads the box and they tackle well, we're in trouble. To get us to the ultimate, you've got to be able to pass the ball a little bit."
There's a reason White threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Tito Gonzales in the fourth quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. Gonzales ran a pattern down the middle of the field. Oklahoma didn't see it coming because West Virginia hadn't shown it all season.
"A quarterback shouldn't run the ball 20 times a game," Stewart said. "Eventually, it catches you. Now, if we can get the ball a couple of more places, make them defend the entire field, maybe we won't have those safeties coming down [toward the line]. Maybe we won't have people loading the box quite as much."
Stewart also plans to introduce more presnap motion to the offense. He hired Wake Forest quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen as offensive coordinator.
White likes the change in philosophy for all the above reasons. He likes the idea of keeping the defense honest. He really likes the idea of keeping the defense off him. His back aches enough that he has added pre- and post-practice stretching to his regimen. He has been the starter since early in his redshirt freshman season.
"In some ways, I feel like I just got here," White said. "Physically, I feel like I've been here for about 20 years. My body is starting to get old."
"I know I'm still young," White said. "Hopefully I'll grow old some day. I've been playing sports for a long time. It sort of wears on you."
When the West Virginia freshmen show up this summer, White might feel older. His younger brother Coley is the only quarterback among the Mountaineers' 24 signees.
"We've never played together," White said. "That will be very interesting. He'll probably hate me because I'll probably try to coach him to death on top of Coach coaching him."
West Virginia football has come a long way in the six months since the loss to Pittsburgh. The egos ruffled by Rodriguez's departure have been soothed. And Stewart is betting that if the new offense can keep White physically healthy, the psychic wounds of the loss to the Panthers will fade away, too.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Virginia has come a long way since its loss to Pittsburgh in December. But where the Mountaineers go from here will depend on whether they can keep Pat White on the field.